Ben Langhinrichs

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Genii Weblog

Sixteen and wondering about Dad

Thu 3 Aug 2006, 10:42 PM



by Ben Langhinrichs
My son recently turned sixteen, and as some of you may know, has spent the summer working for me on the ever so secret Ali Baba project.  He is a good worker, and learning quickly, but I am always trying to communicate more than just what I do, but also why I do it.  Today, I had him read The Graphing Calculator Story that I mentioned yesterday, because I wanted him to get some of the ethos of the job.  He read it all, but seems more confused than ever.  

"Why would they work like crazy that way when they weren't even getting paid?" he asked, shaking his head.

"Because it was awesomely cool stuff," I explained in my sophisticated, adult way, " and besides, now it is available to thirty million people, and how many programmers get a chance to say that."

He didn't seem very convinced.  "But, Dad, you write software that actually makes money.  Why would they work on something that didn't make money?"

I imagine it would have been funny for a fly on the wall listening to an ardent capitalist like me explain how I wouldn't need to make all this money if I didn't have a family, and that I love the idea of having no bosses or deadlines and flying under the radar screen, but I did my best.

"But, Dad," he hesitated, and then went on, "you don't have any bosses or deadlines, and you just create whatever software you like anyway, and you still make money at it."

I guess he has a point, but I still like the idea of sneaking into the building without a pass.  Maybe it is like Pippi Longstocking, and you just can't have school vacation if you don't go to school.

Copyright © 2006 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:


488.1. Owen Anderson
(08/04/2006 12:51 AM)

The Graphing Calculator story is a pretty amazing story.

There's something amazing about the thrill of writing software that lots of people will use. I think it's part of the appeal of Open Source software, especially to those of us who are too young to have been around in the formative years of the modern industry. It represents our chance to get our code out there.

For me personally, it contributes very directly to some of my more political views on OSS. I am a supporter of BSD-style licensing (as opposed to the GPL) because I want my code to be used. I want to contribute to the collective knowledge, to make something that will make other people's lives/jobs/whatever easier. If someone out there is using my code (whether from my source or incorporated in a proprietary product), I have contributed, and that makes me happy.


488.2. Ben Langhinrichs
(08/04/2006 05:05 AM)

Owen - I agree that this this is a definite appeal of Open Source software, that sense that "my software could be used by and valuable to many people". You should read (in all your spare time, ha!) Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin to see the philosophical underpinnings, and because it was one of my favorite books in college. I have the actual book on my shelf here, but for your generation, it is on-line.

Oh, by the way, I was thinking about you and another big truism about software development, which you could file under all software has bugs.

For those who wonder, Owen is a friend of my daughter's who is into software, and is likely to code circles around us all soon enough (sigh!).

- Ben


488.3. Tim Tripcony
(08/04/2006 05:36 AM)

I think the Calculator story also speaks to the issue of the kind of quality produced when unfettered passion is injected into the process. I've seen free software that is better architected and better executed than some equivalent commercial software, simply because passion was the only motivation. The larger the organization, the more likely it is that compromises will have to be made in order to meet a deadline or previously established guidelines. When someone writes an application because they want to, not because they have to, quality doesn't have to be compromised because ultimately there's nothing forcing it to ever be released. It's finished when the author(s) want badly enough for that to happen and are thoroughly satisfied that they've met their own goals. When the same ideals are applied to a commercial product (or a company's in-house software), the result is quite powerful.


488.4. Ben Langhinrichs
(08/04/2006 05:45 AM)

Tim - Excellent point! Passion is extremely important to the creative process in general, and to software development specifically. Of course, having released several software packages, I have to tell you that I'm never completely satisfied, but I do want to write what I write. I hope that that explains why our Midas product has over a million licensed clients (although I'm afraid it could just be because what IBM ships in rich text programmability is just crap). Anyway, thanks for making the point.


488.5. Owen Anderson
(08/04/2006 11:26 PM)

I don't know about coding circles around anyone. ;-)

Passion about what I'm writing is extremely important for my productivity. When I care about what I'm working on, I'm more motivated to make it work, to make it work well, and I feel like I've achieved something when it's done. Everything goes faster when you're excited about it!